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The Sound of Bells

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren

October 14, 2023

Christina and I were recently in San Giovanni on Lake Como in Italy. One evening, we climbed steep steps through a maze of ancient stone buildings and houses. The cobblestone streets were intermixed with asphalt as modernization ebbed and flowed through this tiny town over centuries. Before we knew it, we were overlooking several miles of the lake. The Italian alps were framed by blue sky, and eventually a sunset, that seemed straight out of a fairy tale.

As we watched, the spire of the church down near the water peacefully and slowly began to chime: the sound of church bells. San Giovanni’s soft music quieted, and across the lake the bells of Tremezzo could be heard, and then the bells of Lenno carried the song southward. The bells never competed, they just beautifully explained to their friends and family across the lake that everything was all right.

Here I was introduced to the concept of campanalismo. It refers to food that is produced within the sound of a church’s bells. This simple word defines a historic culture of food. Each town is proud of the unique local dishes and flavors that its soil and plants and history has produced. Its sense of family and community.

As globalization became the priority in Italy and beyond, the concept of campanalismo became a stigma. With all of the new opportunities afforded by technology, why would you want to eat from your own community?

So much effort has gone into tipping the balance of power out of the hands of consumers and fooling them into thinking that they have more power than ever. Cheap energy meant that it is easy to drive the 30 minutes to the nearest large town to participate in the illusion of choice. More grain and beef are being produced than ever, but farming communities seldom eat what they are growing. Some large corporations consolidated a food system.

Fewer and fewer bells are heard.

One of the greatest stories of my life is that I get to intimately see a continent’s food system. Not reading about it, or talking about it. Actually feeling the soils in my fingers, smelling the plants, and hearing the birds and insects. Meeting the farmers and their families, and nourishing my body with the food that they produce. We are creating an inventory of a continent’s food system; its regenerative food system especially. Most importantly, with all of my senses, I am feeling the spirits of hundreds of farms.

The nature of this exploration has defined contrasts that help to illuminate future paths.

I learned in early July that the farmers of Kansas have a lot to teach. For the past 150 years, misled Kansas farmers have been beating the hell out of their soils and draining their aquifers. The result is that most of the small towns throughout the state are as dried up as what remains of their soils. It too often feels like forsaken land. We visited 20 farms that are writing a new chapter to this story.

On these farms, tilled cropland is being converted into grass. Well managed animals are returning to this land (not in confinements). Urban farms are emerging to help connect the next generation to food, and to grow healthy food for their communities. Elderly farmers are giving young farmers a leg up to get started. Women farmers are active and guiding in the community we sampled.

I learned in late August that the farmers of Vermont have a lot to teach. The roads curved through forested mountains, threading along rocky streams, connecting small rural towns. In one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country, hundreds of small dairy farms were raising their cows on pasture, growing the best tasting milk that I have ever experienced. A cooperative is aggregating this milk, allowing the 50-cow milking operations to persist without having to “go big or go home”.

The land there has been farmed for nearly 250 years. At least one of the farms here has been practicing short rotation, planned grazing for at least 150 years. With little effort, the soil probes sank to the hilt through the rich, black soil. Small farms grew hundreds of different crops for their communities, were the basis of learning centers for children of the community, and had intense community involvement.

These two regions provide an experimental test of two food systems. The industrialized system worked well for a long time, and it failed. The regenerative food system continues to support it’s communities, and is the only way that we will continue to produce food for our country.

At the beginning of the summer, I thought that regenerative agriculture could be explained with 4-5 simple buckets of practices/principles. I was wrong.

I am now convinced that the most inherent part of a regenerative farm is connecting with the natural world, family, and community. The principles can support this, but do not replace it.

Understanding this fundamental premise of regenerative agriculture, and seeing what I have seen along a transect of North America’s food system has produced two questions that get to the heart of the matter. On your farm, do you grow food that your family and community eat directly? Have human footsteps been felt on each acre of the farm?

Unless these two questions are answered affirmatively, a farm cannot attain what is possible in terms of regenerative outcomes.

The affirmation of these two simple questions represents a goal to strive for as we are forced to evolve our culture and food system into one that supports a planet and the human species.

I predict that when we are finished, the tolling of bells will gently remind us of who we are.


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